President's Column - March 2018

Shalom. We cannot wait until the Sunday, March 11th congregational meeting to share with you all how our synagogue renewal project is coming along. Come nosh with your fellow congregants at 9:30 a.m. and then learn what the many volunteers on our Building Committee and their supporting cast have been up to when putting their heads, hearts, and talents together in service to our community. Come hear the choices examined and the vision for the future. A must-see will be the large-scale model and the aerial drone footage of our property presented by our architect Duo Dickinson. It will be an engaging and informative morning, to wake you up after losing an hour’s sleep from going on daylight savings time.

March also brings us the Passover Seder – yes, in March, not April! Never too early to plan to spend your Second Seder with your fellow TBT congregants at our communal Seder on Saturday evening, March 31.

While we can take delight from our synagogue community, we also cannot ignore the sad news around us. Our synagogue and nursery school mourn our nursery school graduate Ethan Song, the Guilford High School freshman who passed away in tragic circumstances in recent weeks. Then we had the national news of the events in Parkland, Florida. We certainly need a new national conversation about guns and public safety. I hope that as many people as possible take this opportunity to engage in the civic advocacy and public discourse necessary to move our nation to a sounder and safer footing.

- Jeff

Rabbi's Column - March 2018

From the Maxwell House Haggadah to the “10-Minute Seder,” there are more editions and publications of haggadot for Passover than there are prayerbooks for any other Jewish holiday…by far.

Why are there so many types and varieties of Haggadot? Which haggadah will you be using around your seder table? Will you buy a haggadah, find one on the internet, create your own – even use a PowerPoint haggadah instead of a hard copy?

There are literally thousands of Haggadot to choose from because Passover is a holiday that speaks to the quintessential creation story of our people. It is the story of a journey – from slavery to freedom, from degradation to respect, from despair to exhilaration, from darkness to light.

This theme which is at the center of Jewish life speaks to all human beings who yearn to be free. That is why Passover has been the holiday that has generated a Freedom Seder, a Civil Rights Seder, a Women’s Seder and an Immigration Seder. On Passover we sit around our seder tables and take the journey ourselves, recalling our enslavements and tasting of a world where all humanity are free.

Interestingly enough, the Maxwell House Haggadah reveals a classic American story. It was first printed in 1931 when Jewish immigrants to the United States were yearning for recognition and affirmation of their American standing. That Maxwell House wanted to market to the Jewish community was a sign of having ‘made it’ in America. As a part of an ad campaign for their coffee, Maxwell House offered their Haggadah free with the purchase of coffee. The campaign also helped dissuade some in the Jewish community of the mistaken understanding that coffee (because it is a ‘bean’), is not kosher for Passover. The coffee bean is a berry; not a legume. Talk about success stories – there are now over 50 million copies of the Maxwell House Haggadah in print!

There are many other free Haggadot worthy of exploration. Just go to to make your own step-by-step Haggadah. There are also some beautiful haggadot for purchase. “A Passover Haggadah,” with illustrations by Leonard Baskin, is a personal favorite. So too the “Gates of Freedom” Haggadah, edited by Rabbi Chaim Stern.

You can find a Haggadah for scholars and one for kids and another for seekers. The most important point is that there is a Haggadah for you. As Passover approaches, exploring the many possibilities for how to tell the story is as important as the telling of the story. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are hungry for the telling and the retelling of our sacred story, reflect upon the many choices of Haggadot that are before us. May we choose wisely as we prepare for the sacred task of reliving our people’s journey from slavery to freedom.

Rabbi Offner

President's Column - February 2018

Shalom. The Jewish people have historically provided a home for refugees and aid to those in need. I would like to mention a couple of examples of that mission from this past month. First, I am pleased that TBT’s participation in the Shoreline Interfaith Refugee Resettlement group (SHIRR) has led to our sponsoring another refugee family arriving on January 25 (just a few days after I’m writing this column – and my twin daughters’ 18th birthday, if I can throw that in!). The family of 3 from Afghanistan will have a Branford apartment near the center of town. As reported in our TBT weekly Shofar blast, TBT needs to raise $3,500 to honor its financial commitment to help resettle the family, and I am confident that our congregants will fund that commitment.

I also recently attended a special briefing in New Haven, organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven, by William Recant, the Assistant Executive Vice-President of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Invited guests heard Dr. Recant speak passionately and eloquently of the JDC’s mission and accomplishments over several decades, providing aid, medicine, social support, and rescue operations (as needed) to Jewish and other communities around the world. Dr. Recant’s work in this field goes back to assisting with the airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, but more recently the JDC has needed to intervene to assist Jews in need during the current crisis in Venezuela (among many more examples too numerous to mention here). The JDC is a partner agency of the Jewish Federations of Greater New Haven, and hearing of its work makes one proud to be part of the greater Jewish community.

I am also proud to say that many of our congregants (adults and children) recently participated in the various one-year anniversary Women’s Marches held in multiple cities. I fully expect to see and hear of many more efforts by our congregants to both promote social justice and assist people and communities in need.

- Jeff

Rabbi's Column - February 2018

As you read these words, I will be back from my January sabbatical. As I write them, I am with you from afar, wanting to share my gratitude for this precious time and wanting to let you know a bit about how I have spent my time. It is a privilege to be able to have shifted my focus from the daily tasks of work and life in order to live fully in a different kind of present, where clutter is cleared from the landscape and perspective is sharpened.

During my month away, I discovered that it isn’t so easy to let go and allow the present moment to envelop in such a fashion that tasks recede and living expands. How do we fill our lives? How do we shape each day? Too often, we allow the day to shape us. Tasks that have to get done take precedence. Events that happen to us consume our time before we get to decide how we would choose to use our time.

I have chosen to spend much of my time studying the texts of Jewish Mysticism. I look forward to sharing what I have learned with you as I am developing a 4-week Lunch & Learn on Jewish Mysticism. Do mark your calendars now for the 4 Wednesdays in April at noon for our class. The challenge of making life meaningful has been with us forever. In our age we have unique challenges – like those that technology has created for us – but there have always been distractions in life and there have always been efforts to clear those distractions so we can create lives of meaning. Jewish Mysticism is based on the belief that we humans can attain a consciousness that leads us to experience awe and wonder at any moment. It is the simplest of opportunities because it is right before us all the time, but it is the hardest of endeavors because we humans are so easily distracted. The Jewish mystics dedicated their lives, their study, their every-day routines, to achieve a level of consciousness that they described as an experience of the Divine. I have been spending much of my time reading the texts of Jewish mysticism and discovering just how hard and challenging but also how compelling the language of mysticism is.

Consider this. We are all familiar with the 121st psalm. We often recite this psalm at times of tragedy or loss. We say: “I lift my eyes to the heavens, from where (m’ayin in the Hebrew) will my help come? The mystics say no. We’ve got it wrong. Look again. The word ‘m’ayin,’ which we think so obviously means ‘from where?’ could also be pronounced ‘m’ayn’ which translates as ‘from Nothing.’ It is not a question at all; it is an answer. Where does our help come from? From Nothing. Our help comes from Nothing. What the mystics are suggesting is that ‘Nothingness’ is at the center – not in a nihilistic way, but to remind us that no thing is crucial, rather it is being itself that is crucial.

I have been personally focused on the challenge of being more and doing less. It is easier to do while away. Even then, it is not so easy for distractions rise like the mist on the waters. You sometimes don’t even notice that they are distractions, but they are always there.

This has been a precious time for me. I have had time for learning and time for rest and time for fun. Being full-time with Nancy has been the best of blessings. It has been a privilege to be away from the constant demands of the rabbinate, but it is also from afar that it becomes so clear how precious our TBT community is.

I return to you invigorated and excited about all of our upcoming adventures at hand: our congregational trip to Israel, our re-imagining of our building and strengthening and beautifying it for the future, our marking together of Jewish time and celebrating Shabbat together each week, and being with you to celebrate your lives, the peaks and the valleys, to celebrate the awe and wonder of life together.

L'Shalom - 
Rabbi Offner

President's Column - January 2018

Shalom. In contrast to the cold, snowy weather as I’m writing this in mid-December, I have experienced the warmth of several wonderful community events this month. Our TBT communal Chanukah dinner and service - attended by about 150 congregants, including many children - was a joy to behold, and our Mitzvah Day at religious school was equally uplifting. The collective spirit of our children at these events warmed up the coldest days.

An even bigger gathering was the Biennial conference for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), where I spent a few days in Boston in early December with over 5,000 fellow Reform Jews from across the United States and Canada (including seven of us from TBT!). If there was ever any question about the spirit and vibrancy of Reform Judaism, going to Biennial will dispel those doubts. (You will all have another chance two years from now in Chicago!) Among all the learning sessions, talks, services, and entertainment was an important sermon by URJ President Rick Jacobs discussing the growth of Reform Judaism in Israel and the determined fight to ensure its rightful place in Israeli society and law, along with useful perspectives on the status of Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Closer to home, we will have an important opportunity to learn about our exciting synagogue building project, and its current status and options, at a congregational meeting scheduled for Sunday morning, March 11th. Please follow the progress of our project in the monthly update in Shofar newsletter and put the March 11th gathering on your calendars.

- Jeff Babbin

Rabbi's Column - January 2018

It is hard to believe that I am already in my 6th year at TBT. In anticipation of soon being in my 7th year, the Board of Directors and I have been in discussion about possible Sabbatical time. Given the very full schedule of events, it seemed best to break up any sabbatical time into smaller parts - hence, we have agreed upon a first step of one month of sabbatical time to be taken January 1-31, 2018.

My first priority is to assure coverage for the congregation during the time that I will be away. Cantor Margolius will be in charge of all clergy needs. Cantor Margolius has already demonstrated his strong skills and the congregation will be in very good hands. Leading our congregation is a team effort and so I also want to thank our Administrator, Kim Romine and Administrative Assistant, Bonnie Mahon for stepping up and making sure everything is seamless, as always.

The notion of a sabbatical comes directly from the Jewish value of ‘shavat vayinafash,’ to stop in order to replenish. I feel blessed to be the rabbi of TBT. It is a privilege to be present with so many times of great intimacy, joy and even sadness, in your lives. I love leading worship, teaching Torah, officiating at life cycle events, engaging with the greater Shoreline community, representing the Jewish community to interfaith endeavors, and providing pastoral care to our congregants. I take very seriously the import of my being available at times of need, not only on a full-time basis, but virtually on an all-the-time basis.

While I am energized by the demands of my work, I am also aware of the need to tend to my own professional and spiritual development. I realize that I am hungry for a period of time to replenish my spiritual reserves and better serve the congregation. The rabbis teach the concept: “livnot u’l’hi-banot,” that is, we can best help to build up others, when we build up ourselves.

What will I do? In some ways, my goal is to ‘do’ less and ‘be’ more. Nancy and I will be out-of-town, hoping to power off in order to recharge. I have a long list of reading material, which I am eager to shape into Adult Education courses upon my return.

I am very grateful to the Board of Directors for its support and blessing. I am grateful to you as well for your enthusiasm. The months go by quickly; I am sure that I will be back in what seems like a flash. At the same time, I hope something of this sabbatical will last forever.

Rabbi Offner

President's Column - December 2017

Shalom. We have all just celebrated Thanksgiving, a holiday that brings together people of all religions and communities in our country. It must be an especially sweet day for refugee families celebrating their first Thanksgiving, their first celebration of being a new American.

Coming together as a community and bridging our differences was in important theme of a Guilford event that I recently attended one Sunday afternoon in November. Entitled “Building a Community of Compassion,” a broad cross-section of Guilford residents (including clergy, activists, and concerned citizens) explored their own experiences and those of others regarding diversity (or lack thereof) in the area and incidents of bias or intolerance. There was much reflection and conversation, and many of us spending the afternoon at the Guilford Community Center learned a great deal by just sitting down and listening to the stories of others. We ended the day by each person committing to assist with an action plan. For me, I will attend a meeting on December 6th to explore forming a Guilford Human Rights Commission. Thanks to Rabbi Offner for being part of the steering committee organizing the event and inviting me to participate.

Changing the subject only slightly, there is a step we can all take to help TBT be a more welcoming, vibrant, and economically diverse place. This year’s Annual Fund campaign is underway, and my letter explaining how you can participate was mailed to all congregants and is linked in the weekly Shofar e-Blast. The Annual Fund brings in necessary funds for all aspects of TBT operations but is particularly critical in allowing us to welcome all Jewish shoreline families regardless of their economic circumstances. We are a stronger community for opening our doors to all area Jewish families, and we hope to have at least 50% of TBT members make a donation to the Annual Fund in an amount that is comfortable for them. Thank you.

Jeff Babbin

Rabbi's Column - December 2017

I love Chanukah. I can’t wait for the holiday to begin. Why do I love it so much? Funny, but it’s for reasons you might not expect. First, I love Chanukah because it is such an easy holiday. In contrast to Rosh Hashanah or Pesach, there is very little planning that needs to go into Chanukah. What a gift. Just take out the menorah, light the candles,’s Chanukah.

I also love Chanukah because of the requirement that the candles are not to be ‘used,’ but ‘enjoyed.’ What it means in practical terms is that for the 7 or 8 minutes it takes for the candles to burn down, we are required to STOP, to just sit and enjoy, to reflect in the reflection, and glow in the glow of the beautiful candles.

In some ways I wish it could happen every day of the year, but what makes Chanukah special is that 8 nights in a row the family gathers together and visits - no TV, no homework, no dinner. Just family, candles, and time. It’s not even a long time. But a ten-minute evening ritual can be a wonderful moment in time.

Oh, you say, but I forgot to mention the presents! Yes, let’s talk about presents for a moment. I am certainly not against presents. How wonderful that we take time to think of others and offer and receive gifts from them. But eight nights is a lot of nights. How might we approach this gift-giving holiday without being overwhelmed by consumerism? A couple of ideas. One, we might put a $5 limit on all gifts. That forces everyone to be clever in their approach to thinking about gifts. Or, how about a $1 limit on the first night, $2 on the second night, up to $8 on the eighth night?

Another possibility: different kinds of gifts for each of the nights. One night can be a gift you buy, one night can be a gift you write, one night can be a gift you bake, and so on. Need more ideas? How about a gift-of-self night (non-money items such as cleaning a room, or a no-fighting-with-siblings night); a tzedakah night (everyone finds some clothes or toys and wraps them as a gift to a social service agency), a book or poem night where everyone reads a favorite passage, or a gift-you-make night.

Here’s an idea for the third night: give yourself the gift of an adult Chanukah and come to the Latkes & Vodkas celebration sponsored by Federation at the Guilford Yacht Club.

And the fourth night gift: bring the whole family to our Chanukah Dinner, Latkes & Menorah-lighting here at the synagogue.

Chanukah is fun but its message is more important than ever. It is a message of spreading light in a time of darkness, celebrating religious freedom rather than religious coercion, and living with hope rather than fear.

Rabbi Offner

President's Column - November 2017

Shalom. The contemplation and exhilaration of the High Holidays are now behind us. They were polished off by wonderful and lively Sukkot and Simchat Torah celebrations with perhaps 100 congregants at each service, many of them children from our Religious School. What now? Nothing until Chanukah? Actually TBT does not shut down after the High Holidays and has a full slate of services and activities ahead of us this fall.

In addition to weekly Shabbat services and Torah study, Jewish Mindfulness & Meditation will have another Saturday morning session November 4, and the TBT Book Club continues to meet on the third Thursday of every month (see the Shofar for details). Lessons in Hebrew reading start on November 12, as a prelude to next January’s Torah Chanting class. And the can’t-miss event of the Fall is this year’s Scholar-in-Residence weekend: TBT will be blessed when Rabbi Deborah Zecher brings her love of Broadway and Bible to TBT. At the Friday, November 17 service, Rabbi Zecher will present a “Sermon in a Song.” Then on Saturday, November 18, from 6:00-9:30pm, join your fellow congregants for dinner, Havdalah, and Rabbi Zelcher’s presentation on “Broadway Bible,” combining rabbinic insights with her knowledge and performance of Broadway show tunes. Forget an expensive trip to New York and come to Broadway in Madison instead. Free to congregants (and non-members can come with a contribution). Just let the office know you’re coming.

There will also be multiple opportunities this Fall to learn and socialize with members of other synagogues. The URJ’s Biennial Convention is in Boston December 6-10, and already seven TBT members (perhaps a record!) will be going to join with thousands of other Reform synagogue members nationally. Registration is still open. Several of our teen members of the SALTY Youth Group will be attending the regional BBYO Convention in Danbury on November 10-12. All in all, a busy and fulfilling Autumn at TBT.

- Jeff Babbin

Rabbi's Column - November 2017

The month of November has only one Jewish holiday in it: Thanksgiving. “Wait,” you say, “Thanksgiving? That’s not a Jewish holiday!” True, it is not technically a part of the Jewish calendar, but it is, though secular, one of the most Jewish of holidays. It is Jewish because it is based upon two of the most Jewish of values: THANKS and GIVING.

Judaism teaches that we are to give thanks every day. There is so much to give thanks for, even in times of trouble. Judaism also teaches that the act of giving - of ourselves, of our good fortune, of your monetary resources - is a spiritual discipline.

This particular Autumn has been about as gorgeous as Autumn gets here in New England. While we have been enjoying beautiful weather, we are keenly aware of other places and other people who have not been as fortunate as we have been.

At this season on Thanksgiving, I want to give you the opportunity to express thanks for our good fortune by giving to others who are in need. There is a long list. We continue to focus our concern upon those affected by hurricanes in Florida, Texas, and the Carribean, and those affected by the dreadful wildfires in California. Those disasters hit close to home when we learn of people we know or communities we connect with that are suffering.

Our Jewish community suffered a dreadful loss as the Reform Movement’s Camp Newman burned to the ground in Santa Rosa, California. I spent many years in leadership at URJ Camp Swig, which was the precursor to Camp Newman. Fortunately, no lives were lost at Camp Newman, but when I think of the summer spirit and all those facilities teeming with the joys of Jewish children, I shudder for their breathtaking loss. We can help rebuild our Reform Jewish Camp Newman by going to to lend our support.

We are also well connected to the synagogue in St. Thomas where my colleague, Michael Feshbach, serves as Rabbi. He writes:
“I am grateful that the damage to the synagogue itself was limited, although it was significant. We lost all our machzors, most of our haggadot, some our our siddurum, cabinets and other furniture in the museum, extensive damage in both of our historic cemeteries. We may have lost our keyboard and we have water pumps and perhaps a generator switch which needs to be replaced. We double-wrapped the scrolls during both storms (some of which were saved from the fire in our building in 1831!) but were taken by surprise by the Kol Nidrei night deluge. We found a damp ark and ruined white materials the morning of Yom Kippur. One scroll was slightly wet; we believe it is not permanently damaged. We have real damage and need support, but we know things could have been much worse. We must take care not to let there be too long-lasting damage to the spirit of the place. And we know we can come back better than we were.”

Those interested in helping can go to the Facebook page “The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas” or to their webpage at

We are a small but mighty people. “Kol Yisrael Eruvin zeh b’zeh,” we are all connected to one another. At this season of Thanksgiving, we show our thanks by giving to those in need.

Rabbi Offner